CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
Sen. John Kerry continued his primary season dominance with a win in Wisconsin, while Sen. John Edwards' strong second surpassed expectations and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's distant third begged the question: will he stay in this race, winless and strapped for cash?
Edwards went into Wisconsin hoping to present himself as the Kerry alternative; he leaves with two weeks to fight the two-man race he sought. With few contests of note in between, the next big campaign stop is Super Tuesday, a truly national contest that favors Kerry due to his exposure, his money and, most importantly, his victories in 15 of 17 states so far.
"I think it is very difficult, if not impossible, for Edwards to be nominated. But at the same time, I think he is in a win-win situation now," said Doug Schoen, Bill Clinton's former pollster and an unaffiliated Democratic strategist. "If lightening strikes or Kerry slips up or if the media turns Edwards into the new flavor of the month, he has some chance.
"I think it is bad internally for the party but because Edwards is not running a negative campaign, it is not as bad as it could be," Schoen added.
Kerry finished with 40 percent of the vote. Edwards was a close second with 34 percent, while Dean trailed distantly at 18.
On Monday, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel endorsed Edwards. The backing of Wisconsin's biggest broadsheet may have given Edwards a strong 11th-hour bump, just as the endorsement in the final week of campaigning in Iowa by that state's largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, did.
The other contributing factor to Edwards strong second, was foreseeable. Wisconsin has an open primary; so open that any registered voter – Democrat, Independent or Republican – can participate.
Exit polls show that only 60 percent of the voters who cast ballots Tuesday were Democrats, and they voted overwhelmingly for Kerry by about 20 points over Edwards. Yet among the 30 percent of voters who call themselves Independents, Edwards ran about 10 points ahead of Kerry. No doubt, the North Carolina senator will emphasize his Independent appeal as we head into March 2's Super Tuesday.
In a country evenly split among Democrats and Republicans, Edwards will argue he can appeal to what could be a decisive centrist vote.
On Super Tuesday, ten states from California to New York will hold contests. There will be 1,151 delegates up for grabs, the most of the primary season and more than have so far been contested.
In industrial states like Ohio, which also votes on March 2, Edwards will emphasize his anti-NAFTA stance. The United States has lost 995,000 jobs overseas since the last recession began in March 2001, according to Economy.com. Edwards' populist message rang true in Wisconsin and the issue should resonate in the country at large.
Nonetheless, Kerry held on. He did win, continuing his nationwide streak. Heading into a truly national race on March 2, Kerry still is the nearly insurmountable frontrunner. And he won in Wisconsin despite only beginning to campaign there on Friday.
Edwards had been there for a week, allowing the polished, sometimes glib, former trial lawyer the opportunity to participate in the interpersonal retail politics he excels at, in small rooms and small states. But March 2 is wholesale; there is too much ground to cover in two weeks, leaving momentum, advertising and media coverage as the largest determinant of victory. So far, Kerry holds sway over all three.
"Edwards is probably going to get his one-on-one opportunity here," veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said. "But this is the part of the campaign that he hasn't demonstrated his ability in.
"I think fundamentally he is a very charming candidate and his ability to charm voters in relatively small groups and translate that into media coverage is going to be challenge, just think about California," Carrick continued. "Now add New York, the city, five boroughs, the suburbs, upstate, Long Island. And Ohio is very complicated place to. And Georgia is very complicated. They're all big and expensive."
Nevertheless, Edwards is the story tomorrow. At his celebratory rally Tuesday evening he quipped, "Objects in your mirror may be closer than they appear." The audience loved it.
And with the pundints craving the horserace to keep going, there is no media darling like a comeback candidate. No matter how you spin it, Edwards has not quite done that. Nevertheless, his close second in Wisconsin pushes him enough, just enough, to validly fight on.
As polls closed in the land of dairy and beer, former presidential candidate Bob Dole spoke frankly on CNN, saying that the news of Edwards staying in this race is advantageous for Republicans.
"It sounds good to me, I like to see the battle on two fronts," Dole said, referring to President George W. Bush's campaign already speaking out against Kerry, while Edwards will be competing with the Massachusetts senator on the Democratic front.
The two-man race means Kerry will spend time campaigning against Edwards, instead of raising money to fight in the general election, where Democrats have a large financial disadvantage.
It also means Edwards faces a Catch 22. If he wants to beat Kerry, he must take him on directly, which means going negative to some degree. But Edwards has defined his campaign, his persona even, through his consistent populous speeches and pervasive optimism.
A bigger loser than the Democratic Party is clearly Howard Dean. One month ago, he was still the front-runner and campaigning hard across Iowa, two days before the Jan. 19 caucus he was expected to win. He placed a weak third and the paradigm of this campaign shifted. Kerry was the front-runner and Edwards was the man on his coattails.
In state after state, Kerry won because pragmatic Democrats reign this primary season, seeing Kerry as their strongest candidate in the general election, largely because of his decorated military history. When all the punditry is said and done, Wisconsin was no different.
"Wisconsin's reputation as a maverick state means that people are open to non-centrist candidates but it doesn't mean that people in Wisconsin are not concerned about what they are in other states, which is beating President Bush," said Professor Kenneth Mayer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin. "Dean's campaign was seriously damaged before he got here; Wisconsin voters may be mavericks but they are not stupid."
A few hours after Dean spoke in Madison Tuesday night, he returned to his home in Vermont, ready to consider his options. The former governor has no events scheduled for Wednesday or Thursday. The man who once had more than $40 million has little cash left. Will Dean resign his candidacy? Since polls closed, Dean has not said.
But in his campaign night speech, Dean spoke optimistically to his dedicated following, saying, "We are not done." It was an oblique comment; did he mean his movement for change, or his campaign? By the close of the week, we may know.